APU Adds Another Layer to Movement for NCAA Reform

Posted by Chris Johnson on September 23rd, 2013

Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.

The tide of public opinion turned against the NCAA long ago. Most people – fans, coaches, news media, etc. – seem to agree the organization needs a modern update, if not wholesale change. There are detractors, to be sure, and different factions have different opinions about how the organization should govern college athletics, but the fundamental desire for change seems to be something close to a consensus. The sentiment has struck a sympathetic note with a larger portion of the public in recent years, as the inherent hypocrisy of a “nonprofit” governing body generating billions of dollars off the backs of unpaid amateurs has been rammed home time and again, with everybody from noted civil rights journalists to college basketball analysts piling on. Lost amidst the controversy is the opinion of the (revenue-producing) student-athletes’ themselves – the young men electing to forfeit basic economic rights and health care services and participate in leagues and tournaments administered by the NCAA. A score of former college athletes – including Ed O’Bannon, whose name you should probably be familiar with by now — have voiced their discontent, but active players have, with sporadic evidence to the contrary, looked on from the sidelines as the philosophical debate and subsequent lawsuit that will no doubt define the early 21st century of college sports swirls around them.

The desire for NCAA change has an emergent group of inside-the-lines supporters (Getty Images).

The desire for NCAA change has an emergent group of inside-the-lines supporters (Getty Images).

You began to wonder when student-athletes, an ironclad part of the purportedly broken enterprise of major college sports, would make a concerted and visual effort to protest the denial of rights so many outsiders believe the NCAA has wrongly maintained for so long. On Saturday, several college football players from different teams (including Georgia Tech starting quarterback Vad Lee and Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter) wore wristbands bearing the letters APU, denoting “All Players United,” a movement coordinated by the National College Players Association. At its core, APU is a protest lobbying for change within the NCAA, and features a list of goals (available on the NCPA’s website) it hopes to achieve, including better health care coverage for college athletes, using a share of the NCAA’s television revenue to secure “basic protections” and demonstrating support for the active athletes who joined the O’Bannon lawsuit as plaintiffs. The idea of players coming together to support NCAA reform is encouraging. For all the heat the NCAA has come under in recent months from various columnists and politicians, none of what we have seen to date comes close to the potential impact of actual players standing up against the organization. The platform does come off as sort of vague – demonstrating “unity” is important, and is sure to draw attention from the organization and outsiders alike, but focusing on one, specific goal (a cost-of-attendance stipend, perhaps) would seem a more reasonable agenda – but the fact athletes have not only come to terms with the fact the current system needs change, but articulated concrete measures they wish to implement is a big step toward a stronger and far more impactful form of revolt: refusal to participate.

We are not there yet, and probably won’t be for a long time. At this point, APU comprises a minority of FBS football players. And before the movement (or some similar protest) could take such a strong dissenting turn, APU would likely explore every possible option that doesn’t involve disrupting games. Because as much as we may want the organization’s silly amateurism philosophy to vanish into thin air, and as arcane and outdated as its policies may seem, the basic fact remains that when the lights come on, we are reduced to normal, sports-obsessed, viscerally-entertained human beings. We push aside the system’s inherent flaws (or at least choose to ignore them), the fundamental paradox of amateurs’ athletic competition being leveraged for billions of dollars in broadcast rights deals. When Alabama’s best 11 line up against LSU in Death Valley, or John Calipari’s typical batch of precocious freshmen takes the floor for Kentucky at the Final Four, we still watch the games. More importantly, players still play the games. They enjoy the spotlight, the ability to compete on a national stage in front of tens of thousands of rabid fans, and millions more on television. The day when those players collectively refuse to take the field, when they finally say enough, feels like a long way off. Many of the changes APU desires could be in the works, anyway – what with the O’Bannon lawsuit expected to go on trial next summer. By that time, the APU movement – which was founded primarily as a response to “the criticism brought against a group of current NCAA athletes who joined the O’Bannon name and likeness suit against the NCAA, Electronic Arts and Collegiate Licensing Co. this summer,” according to NCPA director Ramogi Huma — may have achieved its foremost goal.

The topic remains an interesting discussion point in the macro anti-NCAA debate. Desire for change has officially spilled over into the college ranks, and when you really think about it, those are the people that matter most in this entire discussion: the players. Anyway, it will be interesting to see if players from other sports join the APU movement. No player in college hoops – short of some the sport’s brightest stars – would capture the nation’s attention quite like a similarly renowned college football player; college football commands far stronger viewership, and more pervasive media coverage, than college basketball. But extending the movement to other sports would only help APU spread awareness to different audiences and at least present the appearance of a more unified front against the NCAA.

Appeals for NCAA change are not new. Active student-athletes reaching common ground on an ambitious platform of amendments, and visualizing their unity by marking up the equipment millions of people see any time they watch a game, is.

Chris Johnson (290 Posts)

My name is Chris Johnson and I'm a national columnist here at RTC, the co-founder of Northwestern sports site Insidenu.com and a freelance contributor to SI.com.

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